Monitoring the national political soundscape for evidence of intelligent leadership this month has been an exercise in futility. There have been notes from every register of the audible spectrum, but I for one have not discerned much of anything you might call music.
Last month I wondered whether forces might align for leaders to ‘meet in this lost middle ground and pry open a dialogue about our common future.’ In this month’s post, I offer a few ‘picked-up pieces’ while listening, mostly in vain, for sounds of that dialogue.
- Trump, as expected, continued Trumpeting.
- Paul Ryan, to the surprise of some, crescendoed and crashed; unclear what his instrument was, it sounded at times like a cross between the shrillness of a piccolo and the mournful woe of a sackbut. Gorsuch on guitar played a one-note solo; he played and played and played until eventually everyone said, ‘okay, okay, we’ve heard enough.’ Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, charged as drum major with calling the tune and marking time, seemed to recede from view (more on that below).
- The Wall St. Journal astonished so many with its Trump-bashing March 22 editorial ‘A President’s Credibility’ that the editorial itself became news (see here and here.) The Journal’s past apologetic treatment of Trump and frequent glossing of Trump foibles were abandoned for a dramatic takedown on the matter of leadership credibility. Their telling intro speaks to the challenging environment our Chief Executive creates for those leaders seeking middle ground for dialogue. ‘If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.’
- Speaking of the lost middle ground, David Brooks sees the possibility, in his March 28 column ‘Can Elephants Learn From Failure?,’ of Republicans and Democrats meeting in the middle on the next ruling party priority: tax reform. ‘Tax reform is one of the few issues where Republican and Democratic thinking overlaps.’ He properly isolates the responsibility for leadership on this with the majority party, but is clearly pointing toward some middle ground that is there for the taking.
- And, speaking of David Brooks, let me suggest you watch his space, every Tuesday and Friday, in the New York Times editorials. Brooks is one of our most expansive and creative thinkers, regularly drawing from history, sociology, and psychology to comment upon the political scene before us. He self-identifies as a conservative and leans Republican, but clearly follows no party line. He was openly admiring of Barack Obama as a leader, for example, although against Obamacare and critical at the last of his presidency.
I liken reading his columns to watching ‘Back to the Future:’ you’re rooting for Brooks as Doc Brown to get his DeLorean-equivalent (a Remington typewriter?) up to 88 mph and go back in time to correct all the ways he believes we’ve gone so desperately off track. His missives over the past year suggest a hopeful future is possible by revivifying powerful but neglected parts of our collective past, if he can just conjure up a Marty McFly to lead the way.
Here are a few choice tunes from the Brooks hymnal:
- “The Post-Trump Era” from March 25 last year marked the moment it became clear to Brooks that the rise of Trump meant a collapse of the governance model the Republican Party had built on Reagan orthodoxy. He predicted a devastating defeat for Trump, ‘either in the general election or – God help us – as the worst president in American history,’ followed by a revolution phase, where ‘you get a proliferation of competing approaches, a willingness to try anything.’ The column proposes how to prepare for such a still future time – ’mental purging…going out and seeing America again with fresh eyes’ – suggesting it will be a time for ‘honesty…(and) redefined compassion…to rediscover a language of loving thy neighbor, which is a primary ideal in our culture, and a primary longing of the heart.’
- “Let’s Not Do This Again” from November 8 last year, was published on election day, when the outcome was still in doubt. ‘The events of 2016 represent a watershed and a call to do politics differently…it’s becoming clear that the need for a third party outweighs even the very real barriers.’ ‘There has to be a party as confidently opposed to populism as populists are in favor of it …a compassionate globalist party …a party that unapologetically emphasizes public character formation.’ ‘Today a rancid chapter ends. Tomorrow let’s start with fresh ground and a new party.’ – A call placed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on election day, hoping a new somebody takes residence who will pick up the outside caller and care to listen.
- “Let Bannon Be Bannon” from March 17. Fast forward three furious months and Brooks is still angling for something positive. He notes the absence of Bannon’s influence in the healthcare and budget proposals with chagrin – and some irony. ‘He was the guy with the coherent governing philosophy. He seemed to have realized that the two major party establishments had abandoned the working class…(and)…had the opportunity to realign American politics around the social, cultural and economic concerns of the working class…it would be nice if the people who voted for Trump got economic support, not punishment. For that, there’s one immediate recipe: Unleash Steve Bannon!’ It’s a desperate wish: someone in power who can pull together the disparate and divisive into something coherent and possibly unifying.
- “The Unifying American Story” from March 21 continues searching for a way to bring us together. At its birth as a nation, America defined itself by the Exodus story, he writes, escaping bondage in one country for a promised land and a free, fresh start. Brooks notes it’s a story that’s no longer a lived reality or even taught in schools. ‘What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.’ – A wistful longing.
This is, in so many words, the thing I wrote about last month – the ‘number one expectation we followers should have of our leaders’ – something still neglected or unseen by our national leadership.
- A final note heard, and it’s a harmonious one. One leader stood up in the middle of an unruly crowd and sang his song for all to hear this month. For such he deserves our plaudits: Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Iger, a Democrat, is the lone Hollywood executive on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, the group of twelve or so CEOs formed late last year to advise the administration on economic matters. Customer groups have challenged some participants to step down, asserting that their membership is a tacit endorsement of Trump policies on immigration and his attitudes toward women. Uber’s Travis Urbanick just quit, seven weeks into his membership, after an aggressive #DeleteUber social media campaign cut sharply into his company’s growth numbers. At the Disney annual shareholder meeting on March 8, Iger faced similar challenges and, as reported deep in the second section of the New York Times, found it an occasion to stand up for his values and principles as a leader.
‘A policy that is open to the world is vital to the future success of the Walt Disney Company and to this country,’ he said. ‘(My involvement) is not an endorsement at all of the policies of the new administration…it’s actually a privileged opportunity to have a voice in the room. I made a decision that I thought was in the best interest of this company, to express my point of view directly to the president of the United States.’ He concluded by adding, ‘I assure you that the values I speak of are expressed whenever I get the chance.’
A strong voice, putting his song forth bravely in the lost middle ground I spoke of last month, calling on anyone who’s listening to sing along.
Iger is a lesson to all leaders to make their values and principles known and practiced within the operating environment of their companies. Let’s hope good leadership like this becomes front-page news within our political environment as the year continues.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at email@example.com